A broad consensus seems to be emerging that a compromise plan to apply for state money to help finance a new elementary school is the best way to provide healthy buildings for our children without enormous tax increases.
But you’d never suspect that from reading a guest column in this week’s Amherst Bulletin. It poses lots of questions and claims that a thorough process for receiving public comment was somehow incomplete. This column employs a rhetorical technique called “sea-lioning.” I’ll explain, but first some background.
On Monday night, the Town Council will discuss the compromise plan and will vote on it April 1. This vote is important because the state funding authorities have said they want Amherst to show that it has reached consensus on a plan before they consider providing millions of dollars to help finance the project. The School Committee voted unanimously to support the compromise. Meanwhile, other towns are competing for this state money.
It makes sense for the state to make this request. Three years ago, a small number of Town Meeting members derailed a plan, approved by the School Committee and voters, to build two new elementary schools on the same site with state money. This was a major reason why voters overwhelmingly approved our new charter 12 months ago.
Superintendent Mike Morris has now come up with a compromise plan. It involves building one new elementary school for 600 children but abandoning the proposal for it to include only the upper grades. If approved, Amherst would have only two elementary schools around 2025.
Opponents of the compromise plan want three elementary schools, although that would greatly increase the cost to taxpayers is and is no longer necessary because of declining enrollment. Amherst has been talking about replacing Fort River and Wildwood Schools for many years. Fort River’s problems have been known for over 25 years, and now Wildwood has been shown to have poor air quality. The Town Meeting rejection escalated the cost of replacing them by millions of dollars, and further delay would increase the ultimate cost even further.
“More time spent circling this issue means our kids and their teachers will spend more years with asthma and seasonal affective disorder,” says Heather Sheldon, a parent and architect who has looked closely at the options for Fort River.
The essence of a compromise is that it attempts to locate a middle ground where neither side gets all they want. So it’s not surprising that the three-schools-or-bust folks don’t like every aspect of this compromise.
In the Bulletin column, the writers pose a series of questions that imply that Amherst doesn’t have enough information to make a decision. This is where “sea-lioning” comes in. One definition of this technique is “bad-faith requests for evidence, or repeated questions, the purpose of which is not clarification or elucidation, but rather an attempt to derail a discussion or to wear down the patience of one’s opponent.”
Their attack on the process of reaching consensus doesn’t make sense. Almost 200 people came to six “listening sessions” at which they learned about the compromise plan, got Morris to answer their questions, and discussed it in small groups. A small number of opponents of the plan were not only heard but allowed to distribute flyers.
Here’s a condensed version of what the independent organizers of the six listening sessions wrote to the School Committee:
“We heard very broad support of the proposal in every listening session. Most felt it represented a ‘good compromise’ that considered several perspectives…A large majority expressed appreciation for the sense of urgency…A large majority said this proposal addresses the poor learning environment…Almost all agreed that open classrooms are not conducive to learning…
“Most supported the proposal of one school. Many felt this would allow for a number of efficiencies and expanded learning/social/cultural opportunities…Most very much supported a K-5/K-6 model…Many felt that a school size of 600 was reasonable…Many commented that one new school would have a number of environmental benefits…A large majority believed the proposal was financially responsible. Many appreciated the ‘thoughtful, family-centered approach.’”
Several critics of the previous school proposal, such as Toni Cunningham and Steve Braun, have said they see the compromise plan as the best way forward. I’ve heard that other former critics are on board too. Cunningham recently pointed out on Facebook that building a new 420-student Fort River with state money, and a new 315-student Wildwood without state money, would cost roughly $80 million, crowding out funding for other projects like a fire station, public works facility and Jones Library renovation.
Consensus does not require unanimity, and it would be truly extraordinary if Amherst was 100 percent united. But the report indicates that we have reached a consensus. Now it’s up to the members of the Town Council, in their first really important vote.
The writers of the guest column point to the report of the Fort River Feasibility Committee, which outlines several expensive ways to revive this old building. Sheldon, a member of the committee, says it is not relevant to the current discussion.
“We aren’t selecting a site now and we aren’t deciding between renovation or new construction or a combination of the two,” she says. “None of the options we explored was for a 600-student school, and we only looked at the costs of building a building there. We only looked at options that basically mirrored the existing Fort River School and its plans for the near future.”
The writers of the Bulletin column claim that we need more time to make this decision, but Amherst has been talking about this for years. Please read Sheldon’s response:
“Not only is it immoral to let this continue a day longer, it also doesn’t make financial sense, which is also a moral issue because shouldn’t we be spending money on teachers and not another round of studies – not to mention the black hole of time that our school staff will spend on this issue instead of working to teach children?”
I hope the Town Council has a discussion Monday that includes not only the dimensions of the problem but the costs of inaction. This debate has been going on long enough.